My freshman year of college began with an interview. I arrived to Walla Walla University without income and transportation, and getting a job was my only hope at earning spending money and saving up for a reliable car to replace the one I left in California. Shortly after lugging my stuff from the family minivan to the dorm, I pulled a wrinkly button-up shirt out of my suitcase and practiced my prewritten interview responses.
As a newbie to campus, I felt a little out of my element as I walked into the university’s convenience store to convince the manager I was worth hiring. I nervously shook the manager’s hand, wiped the sweat from clammy palms on my pants and recited with a shaky voice answers I had memorized. Despite my lack of confidence, the interview went phenomenally and the manager was impressed with my resume. We chatted about my hobbies and interests and all feelings of anxiety dissipated. After what couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes, I walked out of the building with a job offer and a new sense of optimism.
Maybe I won’t go broke…
For the first few weeks, the job was a blast. BLT? I can make that. Mopping? Yeah, Mom, I know what’s up. I picked up any extra shift I could and, before long, my coworkers turned into friends. We grabbed coffee off the clock, watched scary movies on Saturday nights and vented about the workplace over games of rummy.
Everything has an end, however. As the honeymoon phase dissolved, I realized flipping burgers and stocking shelves was about as glamorous as it sounded. There were days that I worked till 11:30 p.m. only to wake up for a 6 a.m. shift the next morning. Slowly but surely my hijacked sleep schedule got the best of me.
Class time became naptime, mealtime got overlooked and hangouts were bogged down by the voice in the back of my mind reminding me of my next shift. I slipped into my greasy uniform day after day and trudged under the gray Washington skies to the hell that was my job. Scrubbing toilets, washing dishes and taking out leaky trash bags were nothing compared to the overwhelming smell of fried oil that followed me back to my dorm room.
Finding a cover for my shift was difficult and my limited time off made any weekend trips to Portland or Seattle an unrealistic goal. In a place that was supposed to be a great new adventure, I found myself exhausted and unhappy.
When my buddies back home asked how I was doing I wanted to brag about my crazy college adventures, but I couldn’t fight the fact that I wasn’t getting the same exciting experience everyone else seemed to get. I worked during $5 movie nights at the local theater—heck, I rarely got off campus at all—and I was too exhausted and busy to get involved in intramural sports.
“If I quit the job, would things get better? Is getting a paycheck worth missing the college experience?” I thought. Nothing I said to my boss was enough to get my hours reduced. I spent the better part of the school year with a letter of resignation sitting in my email’s drafts folder, waiting for the right time to call it quits. Something about the idea of giving up irked me, though, and any sense of pride I had left needed to be preserved. I refused to be the guy who couldn’t handle an entry-level job.
After what felt like the longest year, spring rolled around and the countdown till my last day of work had begun. As my freedom approached, I wondered where things went wrong. A job that I had once looked forward to was now controlling my life in negative ways. Was it the hours I was scheduled? The inglorious duties of the job? The oily uniform that required a post-work shower?
In retrospect, I don’t think it was any of those issues. The stories I had been told about college gave me an unrealistic view of what the “best four years of my life” would be like. I expected to find love in my psychology class and get turnt on Saturday nights. I expected to go to concerts on the weekends and fancy restaurants on the weeknights. What I found instead was that money requires hard work and good grades require effort. There was a time for fun, but it wasn’t every day.
Finals week finally arrived and I began my last shift. I took the last order, washed the last plate and emptied the last trash can. Soon after, the clock struck 8 p.m. and I was done. As I swung the double doors open with outspread arms and left the convenience store for the last time as an employee, I was grateful. My bank account was full, my stress was gone and I developed a realistic view of what college really is…and hey, I can cook up a burger like nobody’s business.